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Friday, March 31, 2017

Magnolia (1999)

A disparate group of people in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley all have one thing in common: they're in pain, emotional and psychological pain though in the case of one character, physical pain. They are a policeman (John C. Reilly), a man (Jason Robards) dying of cancer and his trophy wife (Julianne Moore), a game show host (Philip Baker Hall) and his wife (Melinda Dillon) and daughter (Melora Walters), an aging former quiz kid (William H. Macy), a young quiz kid (Jeremy Blackman), a misogynistic motivational speaker (Tom Cruise) and a male nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, this is as good as it gets. It runs past the 3 hour mark but its characters are so vivid, Robert Elswit's camera work is dazzling and fluid while Dylan Tichenor's razor editing and Jon Brion's underscore and Aimee Mann's songs all work together to create a true original work of art.  The kind of film making that is both intimate and yet epic in scale. Its audacity is pure American, you rarely see this kind of cinema outside U.S. shores (it's one of the few contemporary American films Ingmar Bergman had anything good to say about). The ensemble acting is impeccable and the film remains as thrilling as it was when I first saw it almost 18 years ago. With Alfred Molina, Michael Murphy, Felicity Huffman, Henry Gibson and April Grace.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Serpent And The Rainbow (1988)

A Harvard anthropologist (Bill Pullman) is sent to Haiti in 1978 to retrieve a powder that is reputedly able to bring humans back from the dead. He is cynical about the prospects but soon finds himself involved with voodoo, ancient curses, blood rites and walking zombies which make him a reluctant believer. Very loosely based on a non fiction book by Wade Davis and directed by Wes Craven (NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET). Unlike the zombie films and TV shows of today with the walking dead taking over an apocalyptic Earth, this is an old fashioned zombie voodo movie although more far more graphic than films like I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943) or ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU (1957). Considering how far fetched the topic is, Craven creates a believable scenario and he's lucky to have such a no nonsense actor like Pullman to play it straight which helps maintain the illusion of reality. For a horror movie, it's not really scary but it effectively plays on our fear of the unknown. There's a very nice underscore by Brad Fiedel. With Cathy Tyson, Paul Winfield, Zakes Mokae, Michael Gough, Brent Jennings and Theresa Merritt.   

Deluge (1933)

A massive earthquake in the Pacific ocean causes equally massive tsunamis around the globe. In what was New York, a handful of survivors attempt to rebuild civilization but man's base instincts thwart the progress. Based on the novel by S. Fowler Wright and directed by Felix E. Feist. This early forerunner of what is now referred to as the "disaster" film has a lot more going on than special effects. The earthquakes and tsunamis (the special effects are very crude) occur at the beginning of the movie so there's no build up. The focus is on the aftermath. This is a pre-code film so much of it is quite raw for the period. The landscape is strewn with the bodies of raped and murdered women discarded by a roving gang of brutes, an unmarried couple sleep together, there's a graphic ax killing etc. The protagonists are a lawyer (Sidney Blackmer) who thinks his wife and children were killed in the tsunami so he begins an affair with a champion swimmer (the appealing Peggy Shannon) while elsewhere his wife (Lois Wilson) is being pressured to marry a man (Matt Moore) when a law is passed that all eligible women must be married. Not a great film by any stretch of the imagination but still better than you would imagine. 

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

No Trees In The Street (1959)

Set in the slums of pre-war London, a young boy (Melvyn Hayes) is encouraged by his mother (Joan Miller) to work for a local racketeer (Herbert Lom) who preys on the families in the neighborhood. Meanwhile, his older sister (Sylvia Syms) is ready to move out and leave the squalor but the racketeer has eyes for her. Based on the play by Ted Willis (who adapted his play for the screen) and directed by J. Lee Thompson (GUNS OF NAVARONE) when he was still doing intimate British "kitchen sink" dramas instead of big budget Hollywood movies. It's one of those "forgive the baby faced killer, he had a bad childhood" kind of movies. In spite of being preachy in certain spots, overall it's an effective piece of social propaganda. What the screenplay lacks is made up for by the quality of the acting especially Syms as the sister trying to stay true to her ideals and Lom as a former slum street kid who transformed himself into a respected "businessman" but still a thug. There's a nice jazzy underscore by Laurie Johnson. With David Hemmings, Stanley Holloway and Ronald Howard.     

Monday, March 27, 2017

In This Our Life (1942)

Two sisters couldn't be more different. Stanley (Bette Davis) is self centered and amoral and doesn't care who she hurts but Roy (Olivia De Havilland) is conscientious with a moral backbone. When Stanley steals Roy's husband (Dennis Morgan), it's only the beginning of the heartbreak she will bring not only to her family but others as well. Based on the Pulitzer prize winning novel by Ellen Glasgow and directed by John Huston. The racial aspects of the novel as well as the Uncle's (Charles Coburn) incestuous desire for Stanley were toned down for the film and Glasgow disowned the film. What stands out today is a juicy melodrama with nice performances by Davis and De Havilland both, alas, stuck with dull leading men, the aforementioned Morgan (though to be fair, a bit livelier than usual) and George Brent. But the movie's most striking aspect is the portrayal of the young black man (Ernest Anderson) studying to be a lawyer who gets railroaded into a hit and run charge. He and the script play against the usual stereotypes black actors were usually required to play during this era. With Walter Huston, Hattie McDaniel, Billie Burke and Lee Patrick.

The French Atlantic Affair (1979)

A luxury liner going from New York to France is hijacked by a religious fanatic (Telly Savalas) and members of his cult for ransom. The owners of the liner are given 48 hours to meet their demands. The biggest problem is that the cult members are sprinkled in among the regular passengers and there's no way of identifying them. Based on the 1977 novel by screenwriter Ernest Lehman (NORTH BY NORTHWEST), who unfortunately did not adapt his book for the small screen. At a five hour running time, there's a lot of flab that could have been excised and the changes made from the book aren't such a good idea. Like turning two adult physicians in the book into kids here. The film is crammed with actors but very few have substantial roles and many are merely cameos and some like Carolyn Jones are shamefully wasted. The two most interesting characters aren't even on the ship! They are a German terrorist (Richard Jordan) and a French prostitute (Marie France Pisier) based in Paris. They're both far more engrossing than the bland lovers (Chad Everett, Michelle Phillips) on the ship who take up too much time. Directed by Douglas Heyes. The huge (and I mean huge) cast includes Shelley Winters, Louis Jourdan, Stella Stevens, Jose Ferrer, Ted Danson, Horst Buchholz, Donald Pleasence, James Coco, Jean Pierre Aumont, Corinne Calvet, Dane Clark, John Houseman, Patricia Barry, Nehemiah Persoff, John Rubinstein, Richard Anderson and Jacqueline Beer.   

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Hustler (1961)

A small time pool hustler (Paul Newman) aspires to bigger things. To this end, he thinks if he can beat the legendary Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) that will put him in the big leagues. But it isn't as easy as that, possibly because as a cold hearted gambler (George C. Scott) tells him, he's a born loser. Based on the 1959 novel by Walter Tevis and directed by Robert Rossen (ALL THE KING'S MEN). This one is a keeper, a genuine classic that remains as potent today as it did in 1961. One doesn't have to like pool or even have played the game because it's not about the game. Everything falls into place from Sidney Carroll's and Rossen's precise screenplay to the razor sharp B&W Cinemascope lensing by Eugene Schufftan. And the performances! Every actor at the height of his game and none ever better than here. Maybe as good but never better. Sometimes it's easy to forget what a terrific actor Newman was because he had such a power star presence but he was an actor! Mention has to be made of Piper Laurie's beautiful and heartbreaking performance as Sarah, emotionally broken and only wanting to be loved. A great film! With Murray Hamilton, Myron McCormick, Vincent Gardenia and Michael Constantine. 

Personal Shopper (2016)

A young American woman (Kristen Stewart) works in Paris as a personal shopper for a diva like socialite celebrity (Nora Von Waldstatten). She is also trying to communicate with her recently deceased brother since they shared an ability to communicate with the dead. When she starts to receive a series of mysterious texts on her phone, it will lead her further into the darkness. Stewart and director Olivier Assayas (who won the Cannes film festival award for best director for this film) had previously collaborated on CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA and the teaming proved a rewarding artistic collaboration for both and the quality of both their work is continued here. It's a difficult film to categorize. While it has elements of the supernatural and an intriguing mystery at its core, I'm hesitant to refer to it as a horror film or a thriller. It took awhile for the film to find its rhythm but when it did I was totally hooked. It's both elegant and unsettling in its fluctuations while remaining disturbing through out right up until its ambiguous ending. Stewart turns in a terrific performance. She gives us just enough to decipher the potential complexities that even her character may not be aware of. With Lars Eidinger, Sigrid Bouaziz and Anders Danielsen.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

A Stranger Came Home (aka The Unholy Four) (1954)

A man (William Sylvester) returns home after 4 years of amnesia. He hopes to discover who left him for dead 4 years ago. The suspects include three friends (Patrick Holt, Paul Carpenter, David King Wood) who were with him and even his wife (Paulette Goddard) who may have been behind it. But when one of the four turns up murdered, he becomes a prime suspect in the murder. An early Hammer film directed by Hammer vet Terence Fisher. It's based on a novel by George Sanders (yes, the actor) but in actuality was ghost written by veteran screenwriter Leigh Brackett (THE BIG SLEEP). It's a weak rather muddled murder mystery. It's never clear enough (at least to me) about the actual motive of the murder and why the murderer continues to kill. Sylvester's protagonist is thoroughly unlikable and one can see why someone would like to murder him on his unpleasant personality alone. With Patricia Owens and Russell Napier.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Betrayed (1988)

An FBI agent (Debra Winger) goes undercover to infiltrate a right wing terrorist group suspected in the killing of a liberal Jewish radio talk show host (Richard Libertini). Lines and loyalties get blurred when she finds herself attracted to the leader (Tom Berenger) of a white supremacist group.  Directed by Costa-Gavras, who is an old hand at political thrillers with movies like MISSING and the Oscar winning Z on his resume. But the screenplay is by that hack Joe Eszterhas (SHOWGIRLS) and the combination of director and screenwriter is not a good fit. Eszterhas' script is heavy handed and Costa-Gavras isn't able to whip up much tension out of the unsubtle script. Are we to believe that the FBI would encourage an agent to kill innocent people and sleep with the enemy to get information? Perhaps I'm naive but I didn't buy it, at least as shown here. Ironically, the film is probably more timely today than it was in 1988. The present administration has all kinds of racists and right wing whack jobs coming out of the closet and what they're spouting isn't all that different from what's portrayed in the film. Highly uneven but worth watching. With Betsy Blair (MARTY), John Heard, John Mahoney, Ted Levine and Jeffrey DeMunn.

Duel In The Sun (1946)

After her father (Herbert Marshall) is executed for killing her mother (Tilly Losch) and her lover (Sidney Blackmer), a young girl (Jennifer Jones) is sent out West to live with her father's first love (Lillian Gish). As her mother's daughter, it's difficult for her to repress her sexual desires especially when the no good family son (a surprisingly sexy Gregory Peck) seduces her. Westerns are often referred to as horse operas but never has the term been more apt than in King Vidor's insane operatic epic western. Pauline Kael referred to it as Wagnerian and that about sums it up. Eveything is done on a massive scale. When in the opening scene we enter a saloon, it's the biggest saloon you've ever seen, the size of an airplane hangar. When Lionel Barrymore rides out to stop a train from crossing his property, he's accompanied by literally hundreds of galloping cowboys accompanied by Dimitri Tiomkin's thundering music. And the passions are operatic too. Love and hate mixed together as lovers declare their love for each other while killing each other. It's bonkers but so irresistibly compelling that you watch it giddy with excitement. Often referred to as "lust in the dust", there's never been a western like it. With Lionel Barrymore, Walter Huston, Charles Bickford, Joan Tetzel, Otto Kruger and Butterfly McQueen.  

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Grace Of Monaco (2014)

In 1962, the principality of Monaco finds itself under siege from France as De Gaulle's (Andre Penvern) government not only attempts to tax Monaco's citizens but threatens to take Monaco by force if necessary. Meanwhile, Monaco's Princess Grace (Nicole Kidman) receives an offer by Alfred Hitchcock (Roger Ashton Griffiths) to return to the big screen. A misguided effort to turn a year in the life of Princess Grace into a political crisis thriller. When a film begins by telling you it's a fictional account based on actual events, you know that means it most likely has very little based on fact. Not that taking a real life framework and imposing a fictional text to fill it out can't result in a good film. It certainly can as last year's superb JACKIE proved. But nothing in GRACE OF MONACO rings true. One can't help but admire Kidman trying to flesh out a performance from a weakly constructed script but she can only do so much. The film opened in Europe but it went to cable TV in the U.S. It did get an Emmy nomination for best telefilm and Kidman got a SAG nomination for her work here but chalk this one up as an interesting failure. Directed by Olivier Dahan. With Tim Roth as Prince Rainier (it's not a flattering portrait), Frank Langella, Parker Posey (in the film's best performance), Derek Jacobi and Paz Vega as Maria Callas.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Furia A Bahia Pour OSS 117 (aka OSS 117 Mission For A Killer) (1965)

Under the guise of a journalist, a secret agent (Frederick Stafford, TOPAZ) is sent to Brazil to find out who is drugging innocent people and turning them into assassins. But when he arrives, he finds he's just in time to see his contact (Claude Carliez) murdered. Based on the novel DERNIER QUART D'HEURE by Jean Bruce (his 44th OSS 117 book), this was the third entry in the popular (at least in Europe) OSS 177 secret agent film series. This is a pretty straight forward spy caper, heavily influenced by the Bond series. The handsome but vacuous Stafford doesn't bring much to the role but he doesn't sink the movie either. The film benefits from Marcel Grignon's wide screen lensing of the stunning Brazilian locations, both Rio De Janeiro and the lush jungles. Its plot of a fascist mad man plotting world domination had already reached its apotheosis with DR. NO (1962) but the film is entertaining enough even as an also ran. Michel Magne's underscore could have used some punch. His samba music is fine but the action scenes remain unscored and they could have used some help. Directed by Andre Hunebelle. With the lovely Mylene Demongeot, Raymond Pellegrin and Francois Maistre.

Steambath (1973)

A disparate group of strangers including a writer (Bill Bixby), a party girl (Valerie Perrine), a seaman (Stephen Elliott), a gambler (Kenneth Mars), a Jew (Herb Edelman) and two homosexuals (Neil J. Schwartz, Patrick Spohn) find themselves in a steam bath. It isn't long before they realize they're all dead and that the Puerto Rican attendant (Jose Perez) is God. Based on the 1970 play by Bruce Jay Friedman and directed by Burt Brinckerhoff. When this debuted on public television, it was quite controversial, not only due to its subject matter but its nudity which was groundbreaking at the time. Indeed, many PBS outlets refused to carry the show. Friedman's play hasn't aged well. Its stereotypical depiction of gay men was done in a time when someone just playing a flaming homosexual was good for a cheap laugh. Jose Perez's one note performance as God is just plain awful. Friedman's idea of God as a magician doing tricks is rather mundane but perhaps that was his point, that God is mundane. What was provocative in 1970 now comes across as trite. The sexy Perrine's performance consists of grinning a lot but outside of Bixby playing against type, none of the performances are memorable. With Peter Kastner (YOU'RE A BIG BOY NOW) and Biff Elliot.   

Monday, March 20, 2017

They Made Me A Criminal (1939)

When a not too bright boxer (John Garfield) gets framed for a murder committed by his manager, he goes on the run and ends up in Arizona. It's there that he becomes involved with a girl (Gloria Dickson) and her grandmother (May Robson) who are running a date farm where juvenile delinquents from New York are sent for rehabilitation. Based on a novel and play by Bertram Milhauser and Beulah Marie Dix and directed by Busby Berkeley (42ND STREET). The juvenile delinquents are played by the same actors who played the juvenile delinquents in DEAD END (1937) and went on to make several movies as The Dead End Kids. They were tolerable in DEAD END but they were a one joke act that was already beginning to wear thin by the time this movie came out. Some how we're supposed to find them amusing but I found them obnoxious and irritating and it didn't help that Garfield's character is kind of a sleazebag so that I didn't have much empathy for him either. Ann Sheridan as Garfield's good time girlfriend is killed off far too early in the movie and she's replaced by Gloria Dickson who's appealing in a generic sort of way. It's pretty maudlin in spots and I suppose one's affection for it depends on how Warners gritty 1930s output appeal to you. With Claude Rains playing against type as a tough talking detective.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Heller In Pink Tights (1960)

In the Old West of the 1880s, a traveling theatrical troupe has a nasty habit of skipping town without paying their bills! But when the company's lead actress (Sophia Loren) bets herself in a poker game and loses to a gunslinger (Steve Forrest), he's not the man to skip out on even if he has to go through hostile Indian territory to get his woman. Based on the novel by Louis L'Amour and directed by George Cukor (MY FAIR LADY). Cukor is just about the last director you'd think of to direct a western but he brings a stunning and elegant color palette to this comedic western. To this end, he brought in the famed Russian illustrator and photographer Hoyningen Huene to oversee the art and design of the film and the contributions of art directors Gene Allen and Hal Pereira and costume designer Edith Head do the movie proud in giving the film a painterly look. As to the film itself, it's not bad at all but Cukor doesn't have the feel for a real western and the film feels schizophrenic. Anthony Quinn is the male lead but the film is stolen by Eileen Heckart as an actress mother and Margaret O'Brien as the daughter she refuses to let grow up. With the silent film star Ramon Novarro and the director Edmund Lowe, Frank Silvera and Edward Binns.

Beauty And The Beast (2017)

In 18th century France, an enchantress (Hattie Morahan) casts a spell on a narcissistic prince (Dan Stevens) and turns him into a beast. The spell can only be broken if he can find someone to love him for who he is ... a beast. Enter a feisty peasant girl (Emma Watson), who offers herself as a prisoner instead of her father (Kevin Kline) who the beast has imprisoned. Directed by Bill Condon, this live action remake of the beloved 1991 Disney animated film most likely won't please the die hard fans of the original but if you're not attached to the 1991 film, you may prefer it. I liked the 1991 film but I found this more satisfying for several reasons. For one, it just seemed more magical. In an animated film, when a candlestick talks and sings, you expect it, it's animated! But in a live action film, it's truly other worldly. I must confess that although I dislike 3D, the 3D here is superb and also gives the film an eerie supernatural fairy tale quality. And finally, the actors bring an emotional core to the film that cartoon characters, however skillfully drawn, just can't! One major difference between the 1991 animated film and this one is Luke Evan's Gaston. He was pompously amusing in the first one, here he's positively despicable. The film's ace here is Watson who brings some authority to Belle, no girlie princess she! The new songs are lovely and the production design is impeccable. With Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Josh Gad and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Raven (1935)

A genius medical surgeon (Bela Lugosi), who is obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe, has sadistic tendencies and has a collection of torture devices in a secret chamber. When he is spurned by the woman (Irene Ware) he loves, his plots a diabolical revenge. Although Edgar Allan Poe is given credit as the source material, other than the title of his most famous poem, there's really nothing of Poe in the movie. Directed by Lew Landers, this is still a fun horror movie though it's more kitsch than genuinely scary. As the mad doctor, Lugosi can't resist hamming it up shamelessly but Boris Karloff as the poor deformed wretch blackmailed by Lugosi gives a sympathetic and subtle performance. Surprisingly, the film's torture and mutilation proved too gruesome for 1935 audiences and the film was not a success. It is a rather sick and twisted tale and even some 80 years later, it remains quite unpleasant in its sadism. But there's no denying how skillful Landers is at creating a creepy ambiance. Compared to Karloff and Lugosi, the rest of the cast are a dull lot. With Lester Matthews, Inez Courtney, Ian Wolfe and Samuel S. Hinds whose pompous judge may be even more unsympathetic than Lugosi.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Opposites Attract (1990)

When a legendary cowboy movie star (John Forsythe) with a conservative bent decides to run for mayor of a small California coastal town, a liberal feminist (Barbara Eden) decides to run against him. But neither counted on the strong attraction they have for each other which puts a romantic spin on the mayoral race. But can they keep it a secret from the voters? The premise of this romantic comedy shows promise but the film makers hedge their bet by taking the safer route rather than actually confronting the issues they dance around. For example, the voters' fascination with celebrity and how that filters into politics where brand name recognition overshadows the lack of a candidate's qualifications. How a candidate's personal life and past are often used to discredit them when, in fact, they're irrelevant to their capability to handle the job. Although the film is somewhat "dated" (is anyone really scandalized by "out of wedlock" children anymore?), Eden and Forsythe have a nice chemistry which helps hold the thin material together. Directed by Noel Nosseck. With Conchata Ferrell and Ilene Graff.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

A poor village in Mexico is raided frequently by a bandit (Eli Wallach) and his men for food and supplies. Any resistance ends in death for the villagers. They pool their money and hire a professional gunslinger (Yul Brynner), who in turn brings six more gunfighters with him, to fight the bandits. Directed by John Sturges, this is an adaptation of Kurosawa's SEVEN SAMURAI set in the Old West. It's also one helluva western! Its liabilities (like the uninteresting romance between Horst Buchholz and Rosenda Monteros) are minor while its assets include a dream cast with several of the actors still to reach stardom, an iconic score by Elmer Bernstein and several rousing action pieces. Still, it could easily have been cut by 15 minutes without any harm to the film. While there were many budding stars in the cast like Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and James Coburn, none of them manage to outshine Brynner whose dominating presence is the glue that holds the movie together. Shot entirely in Mexico, Charles Lang (CHARADE) makes nice use of the locations. With Robert Vaughn, Brad Dexter and Vladimir Sokoloff. 

Notting Hill (1999)

A rather reserved Englishman (Hugh Grant) manages a bookstore that sells travel books. When an internationally famous movie star (Julia Roberts) enters his bookshop one day, it leads to a romance that leaves both parties unsure of what comes next. Directed by Roger Michell, this is easily the best romantic comedy of the 1990s. What elevates it above the pack of romcoms is that it takes itself seriously rather than the usual romcom hijinks. For one thing, it's seen from a male perspective. We never see Roberts' character unless she's involved with Grant's character but we see Grant's character interacting with family, friends and at the workplace. We see what he's going through and how he's struggling to deal with the situation. Roberts is perfectly cast. Who else to play the biggest movie star in the world than (at the time) the biggest movie star in the world. While the film is filled with humor, it's never "cute". If it can't sustain itself to the very end without going into predictable romcom territory, it's a concession I can live with and it doesn't damage what was given us before. It's intelligent and superbly constructed (well, at least till the last 15 minutes). The soundtrack consists of a terrific collection of pop songs. With Alec Baldwin, Matthew Modine, Hugh Bonneville, Mischa Barton and Rhys Ifans.  

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Une Si Jolie Petite Plage (1949)

A mysterious young man (Gerard Philipe) arrives in a small seaside village during the off season when it constantly rains. He's there ostensibly for his health but he carries a dark secret within him. Directed by Yves Allegret, this is a beautifully crafted piece of pessimistic cinema. What in the 1930s was referred to as poetic realism although with its oppressive and shadowy B&W mise en scene, if any film has a right to be called film noir, it's this one. Henri Alekan's (Cocteau's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST) stunning imagery makes this one of the best looking B&W films I've seen. The great Gerard Philipe with his melancholy eyes and expressive body language brings layers of untold complexity by his very presence. Allegret's film subtly lets us peek into the psychology of a victim of abuse as he confronts his past and realizes the freedom he thought he finally gained was merely illusion. This is a jewel of a film that really should have a wider audience. The excellent underscore is by Maurice Thiriet. With Madeleine Robinson, Jean Servais, Jane Marken and as the sullen 15 year old boy at a crucial crossroad, Christian Ferry in a superb performance. This was one of only 2 films he made as an actor. As an adult, he would turn to producing films like THE BLUE MAX and the 1976 KING KONG.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

I Love Melvin (1953)

When a photographer's assistant (Donald O'Connor) meets up with an aspiring actress (Debbie Reynolds), he thinks if he can get her on the cover of Look magazine that it will help him win her over. Directed by Don Weis (THE GENE KRUPA STORY), this is fluff. Its paper thin boy meets girl plot is merely an excuse to hang some enjoyable musical numbers that display the song and dance skills of its two young stars. Reuniting after their SINGIN' IN THE RAIN success the year before, Reynolds and O'Connor play off each other nicely and their likable personalities go a long way in disguising the paucity of any originality in the narrative. MGM was the King when it came to movie musicals, so much so that they could toss off musical programmers like this in between the big budget stuff like THE BAND WAGON and KISS ME KATE. A minor entry in the MGM musicals canon to be sure but for what it is, it's harmless and enjoyable. With Robert Taylor (playing himself), Jim Backus, Una Merkel, Allyn Joslyn, Les Tremayne, Noreen Corcoran and Barbara Ruick.

Magic Town (1947)

An ambitious pollster and statistician (James Stewart) discovers a small town whose population reflects the opinions of the nation at large exactly. He moves to the town under the guise of an insurance salesman and becomes part of the town. But the town's newspaper editor (Jane Wyman) eventually discovers what he's up to and the result is disastrous. Although directed by William A. Wellman (THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY), this feels like pure Frank Capra. Not surprising considering the film's writer and producer Robert Riskin wrote some of Capra's most well known films like MEET JOHN DOE and MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN. I'm not a fan of Capracorn and this film is full of it (in more ways than one)! It's shamelessly sentimental in its view of small town America. There's a scene where the townspeople gather and sing a soppy high school song that goes on forever. I think we're supposed to be moved. We're also somehow supposed to feel proud of the townspeople who finally band together to make their town great again but it was their stupidity and greed which ran it into the ground in the first place! Stewart is at his "James Stewart" worst but Wyman manages not to embarrass herself. If you like Capracorn, by all means, indulge. If you don't .... forget it. With Kent Smith, Wallace Ford, Ann Shoemaker, Regis Toomey, Ann Doran, Donald Meek and Julia Dean. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Big Trouble In Little China (1986)

A truck driver (Kurt Russell) hanging out with a friend (Dennis Dun) suddenly finds himself caught up in a fantastic adventure below San Francisco's Chinatown as an evil 2,000 year old sorcerer (James Hong) and his minions attempt to break an ancient curse. At first, I was quite frustrated as I attempted to make sense of the confusing narrative but once I realized that it didn't matter a bit and just gave up on that and enjoyed the colorful action and general silliness, I had a good time. Directed by John Carpenter (HALLOWEEN), the movie rushes at a breakneck pace with barely anytime to breathe which is probably a good thing because if one actually thought about it, it would quickly fall apart. Kurt Russell (channeling John Wayne) is the perfect actor for this kind of big screen craziness. He knows just how much to give without actually winking at the audience and thus condescending to the material. It's quite a handsome movie what with the spectacular production design of John J. Lloyd and Panavision compositions of cinematographer Dean Cundey. Normally I dislike synthesizer scores but this one courtesy of Carpenter and Alan Howarth is just right. With Kim Cattrall, Victor Wong and Kate Burton.

The Cardinal (1963)

As the clouds of war hover over Europe, a newly appointed Cardinal (Tom Tryon) in the Catholic church reflects back to 1917 when he was first ordained a priest and his long journey to the position he now holds. Based on the novel by Henry Morton Robinson and directed by Otto Preminger. The film crams a lot into its lengthy running time (three hours with an intermission): the priest's sister's (Carol Lynley) romance with a Jew (John Saxon), the church's weakness when dealing with racism in the 1930s South, the priest falling in love with a woman (Romy Schneider), Hitler's rise to power and the Church's concessions to Nazism etc. It's a lot for one movie to handle and the heavy handedness weighs down the movie. The one character that we stay with through out the entire movie is, of course, the priest and poor Tom Tryon just isn't a strong enough actor to carry the burden which fatally compromises the film. All in all, the film comes across as much an advertisement for the Catholic church as GOING MY WAY or THE EXORCIST although it was made before all the skeletons in the church's closet came tumbling out. There's a powerful score by Jerome Moross. The large cast includes Burgess Meredith, Raf Vallone, Robert Morse, Jill Haworth, Maggie McNamara, Patrick O'Neal, Ossie Davis, Murray Hamilton, Cecil Kellaway and in an Oscar nominated performance, John Huston.   

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

Set in 1973 after the fall of Viet Nam, a Lieutenant Colonel (Samuel L. Jackson) and his men are asked to assist an expedition to an uncharted island that is supposedly looking for geological findings. What they find could kill them! Big, loud, soulless, empty and awful! Directed by Jordan Vogt Roberts, this isn't a strict remake of the 1933 KING KONG (which has already been done twice). The "beauty and the beast" aspect of the story has been jettisoned. What we get is a bunch of annoying assholes that had me rooting for every human death! I mean when you're cheering on some kind of giant lizard creature to gobble up poor Brie Larson, something's wrong! It seems the film makers have overdosed on watching APOCALYPSE NOW too many times with its 70s rock soundtrack, whack job soldiers and bomb explosions. If you hadn't seen Larson and Tom Hiddleston in other movies, you'd be thinking, "Who are these bland talentless schmucks?". If you're into CGI monsters battling each other, you'll probably have a good time but it's the kind of movie I'll barely remember in six months. With John Goodman, John C. Reilly, Richard Jenkins, Jing Tian, Corey Hawkins and Shea Whigham. 

Una Giornata Particolare (aka A Special Day) (1977)

In 1938 Rome as Hitler visits allied Italy and meets with Mussolini, it's a national holiday. As everyone attends the parade festivities, the only two residents left are a housewife (Sophia Loren) and a radio announcer (Marcello Mastroianni) who's recently been fired. A chance encounter between the two of them will affect the woman's life forever. Directed by Ettore Scola, this is an original screenplay but with its two character (the other characters are peripheral and absent for most of the film) story arc and restricted setting, it feels like it was adapted from a play. As such, it's a character driven piece and Loren and Mastroianni imbue their characters with the necessary gravitas and empathy. Mastroianni, in particular, is quite good at blending dignity and a forlorn humanity to emphasize his character's resigned acceptance of his fate. Cast against type as a drab housewife, Loren has a harder time trying to cover up her innate sexuality. The cinematogaphy by Pasqualino De Santis desaturates the color to a faux sepia which gives the film the look of a fading photo album. With John Vernon and Francoise Berd. 

Saturday, March 11, 2017

I Wake Up Screaming (1941)

When a glamorous model (Carole Landis) is murdered, a police detective (Laird Cregar) harasses the promoter (Victor Mature) who made her famous as the chief suspect in the girl's murder. But there's more going on than meets the eye. Directed by H. Bruce Humberstone (SUN VALLEY SERENADE) from the novel by Steve Fisher. A big favorite of film noir buffs, this is an anomaly in Humberstone's filmography which mostly consists of lightweight musicals and comedies, "B" westerns and Charlie Chan and Tarzan movies. I don't know how much he's responsible for SCREAMING's effectiveness but it's a tight nifty murder mystery. Aside from Landis' self centered vixen, the most interesting character in the piece is Cregar's obsessed detective whose backstory is saved for the very end. The only sore spot in the film is the dreadful underscore (credited to Cyril Mockridge) which consists of Alfred Newman's STREET SCENE and the song OVER THE RAINBOW played consistently. Originally titled HOT SPOT before it was changed back to the book's title. Remade in 1953 as VICKI. With Betty Grable as the murdered girl's sister, Alan Mowbray, Allyn Joslyn, William Gargan and Elisha Cook Jr.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Hemingway's Adventures Of A Young Man (1962)

Stifled by small town life, a young boy (Richard Beymer) leaves his Michigan home to find his place in the world. Directed by Martin Ritt (HUD) and very loosely based on Hemingway's Nick Adams short stories. Although the screenplay is by A.E. Hotchner, a personal friend of Hemingway as well as the author of the Hemingway biography PAPA HEMINGWAY, there's very little of Hemingway in this movie. Since it's based on a series of short stories, the film has an episodic nature as its young protagonist goes from encounter to encounter, life experience to life experience. While it may not be a satisfying narrative, it's probably just as well since Beymer is such a flat actor that it's up to the many characters and the actors who play them to bring some life to the film. Among them: Paul Newman as a brain damaged washed up boxer, Dan Dailey as an alcoholic and Arthur Kennedy and Jessica Tandy as his parents. There is one genuinely great thing in the film, Franz Waxman's beautiful score which stands on its own and gives the film a strength that it sorely needs. With Eli Wallach, Susan Strasberg, Ricardo Montalban, Diane Baker, James Dunn, Corinne Calvet, Fred Clark and Juano Hernandez.

The Affair (1973)

An attorney (Robert Wagner) falls in love with a songwriter (Natalie Wood) crippled by childhood polio. Their relationship is hampered by the fact that she is emotionally shut off as well. Directed by Gilbert Cates (I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER), this turgid romance runs a brief hour and 14 minutes but it seems to go on forever. The script by Barbara Turner is overflowing with cliches and both Wood and Wagner are defeated by the lines they're required to speak. The tone set by the beginning of the film tips its hand that this is a romance that won't work out and indeed, the lovers seem ill at ease throughout the film. Never once is there a feeling of passion or of a great romance and without either, what we're left with is a downer without any insight into an ill matched pair. For Natalie Wood fans only. With Bruce Davison, Kent Smith, Frances Reid and Pat Harrington Jr.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Morocco (1930)

A cabaret chanteuse (Marlene Dietrich) with a mysterious past sings in a Moroccan dive where she attracts the attention of a soldier (Gary Cooper) in the French Foreign Legion. Both are cynics when it comes to romance but they can't deny the pull they feel about each other. Based on the play AMY JOLLY by Benno Vigny and directed by Josef von Sternberg, this pre-code romance holds a fascination for a great many film buffs. While I'm not as enamored of the film as most, there's no denying the exotic attraction of all its silliness. Neither Dietrich or Cooper are very sympathetic characters and I found myself siding with Adolphe Menjou, who plays Dietrich's wealthy love struck sugar daddy. Von Sternberg's direction is more languid than I'm fond of but Lee Garmes' B&W cinematography is excellent and he goes with some striking long panning shots that are impressive. The film contains two iconic moments in 30s cinema. Dietrich in a man's suit kissing another woman on the mouth and the memorable last shot of Dietrich marching off into the desert with other female camp followers. With Ullrich Haupt, Eve Southern and Paul Porcasi.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Blood And Lace (1971)

After her mother (Louise Sherrill) is beaten to death with a hammer, a young girl (Melody Patterson) is sent to live in an orphanage run by a money hungry and sadistic woman (Gloria Grahame). This low budget ($200,000) exploitation horror film is barely competent. With the exception of Grahame who manages to retain her dignity (such as it is), the acting is bottom of the barrel. The heroine played by Patterson is an unpleasant piece of goods so there goes the empathy factor. There's just nobody to root for and even the detective (Vic Tayback) investigating her mother's murder has a creepy yen for the underage nymphet. The film remains distasteful right down to the closing credits. For a slasher film, the killings are relatively blind and there's no real suspense. Inexplicably, the film has a cult following among horror movie buffs. Although there is blood in the movie, I didn't see any lace. Directed by Philip S. Gilbert. With Dennis Christopher, Milton Slezer, Len Lesser and Ronald Taft (who retired from acting to marry Lesley Ann Warren).    

Roman Holiday (1953)

When the young Princess (Audrey Hepburn in her Oscar winning performance) of a central European country feels stifled by her duties and constraints, she bolts off into the night. She meets a reporter (Gregory Peck) who lets her crash at his apartment but when he finds out who she is, he plots an exclusive story on her private life with the aid of his photographer (Eddie Albert). Directed by William Wyler, this is an irresistibly romantic contemporary fairy tale and awfully hard to dislike (and why would you?). This is the film that made Hepburn a Star with a capital S and she takes to the camera like a duck to water! She's well paired with Peck who displays a surprising talent for romantic comedy that he rarely indulged in and their chemistry is strong enough that I wish they had done more films together. While it might have been nice to have the film shot in Technicolor to take full advantage of the Rome locations, the B&W cinematography by Franz Planer and Henri Alekan positively sparkles! I must confess I find Eddie Albert's Oscar nomination perplexing, he's fine but nothing more. With Hartley Power and Margaret Rawlings.  

Monday, March 6, 2017

Assignment K (1968)

The head (Stephen Boyd) of an elite British spy ring uses being the head of a prestigious international toy company as his cover. But when his cover is blown and his girlfriend (Camilla Sparv) is kidnapped, he must find a way to save her yet keep valuable information away from his foes. Directed by Val Guest (DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE), this is a typical 1960s spy thriller. Overly complicated and set against a glamorous international backdrop. In this case, England, Austria and Germany. It's an inoffensive bit of spy caper that keeps it close to the bone (it runs a little over an hour and a half) and while not memorable, it doesn't insult your intelligence either. Well ..... almost. The score by Basil Kirchin is rather melodic and tuneful on its own but used inappropriately in the film. For example, after the girlfriend is kidnapped, our hero is distraught but the soundtrack plays what sounds like samba dance music! And no, it's not source music but the underscore. With Michael Redgrave, Leo McKern, Jeremy Kemp, Jane Merrow, Robert Hoffman and Werner Peters.

Wagon Tracks (1919)

Set in 1850, a desert guide (William S. Hart) leads a wagon train through the Santa Fe Trail to New Mexico. His young brother (Leo Pierson) died under mysterious circumstances and there are three travelers on the wagon train who know the truth and he intends to find out what really happened. The travelers are a young girl (Jane Novak), her brother (Robert McKim) and her fiance (Lloyd Bacon). Directed by Lambert Hillyer (DRACULA'S DAUGHTER) and starring the legendary western star of silent cinema, William S. Hart. Hart was already in his 50s when he became a star and this western epic isn't a typical western but more of a revenge drama set in the Old West. There aren't any gunfights and the Indians are a peaceable lot. I'll confess that this was my first Hart western and judging from what I've seen here, he wasn't much of an actor and his "charisma" was lost on me. As to the film itself, it's a solid effort with excellent visuals and landscapes courtesy of Joseph H. August (GUNGA DIN).    

Sunday, March 5, 2017

A Streetcar Named Desire (1995)

A fragile aging Southern belle (Jessica Lange) visits her sister (Diane Lane) and her insensitive husband (Alec Baldwin) in New Orleans. As she clings desperately to some semblance of sanity, circumstances propelled by her brutish brother in law only lead her closer to the abyss. This isn't an adaptation of the Tennessee Williams classic play, it is the play. No screenplay credit is given, this is his play filmed as written. One of the great pieces of 20th century theater, Williams' achingly poetic play contains what may be the greatest role written for an actress (only Ibsen's HEDDA GABLER comes close). If HAMLET is the yardstick for which all actors test themselves then the female equivalent is Blanche DuBois. Lange had played Blanche on Broadway three years earlier and she acquits herself admirably especially in her last big scene. Alas, Marlon Brando's Stanley Kowalski is so iconic that all actors who follow in his footsteps can't help but be compared which isn't fair. That being said, Baldwin holds his own and doesn't owe anything to Brando's performance. As Stella and Mitch, Lane and John Goodman have less iconic roles so they have an easier time of it and both are excellent. Directed by Glenn Jordan. 

Get Out (2017)

A black photographer (Daniel Kaluuya) and his white girlfriend (Allison Williams) drive out to the country home of her wealthy parents (Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford). However, it isn't long before he gets the feeling that something is terribly wrong ..... and he's right! Written and directed by the comedy actor and writer Jordan Peele, this is a cleverly constructed horror film with generous doses of comedy (most of it provided by Lil Rel Howery). It's not particularly original, it's essentially THE STEPFORD WIVES with black people but Peele taps into the black paranoia (usually justified) that white people are out to get them. Peele keeps the viewer off kilter for most of the film and if the film's finale can't sustain the superb inventiveness leading up to it, it's not a deal breaker and he's wise enough not to give us the downbeat ending that it teases us with. The British Kaluuya is excellent in the lead role, he has the difficult job of anchoring the film as the insanity starts whirling around him. As much as I greatly enjoyed it though, I wish I weren't always one step ahead of it right through the end. With Caleb Landry Jones, Betty Gabriel and Marcus Henderson. 

Saturday, March 4, 2017

La Notte Di San Lorenzo (aka Night Of The Shooting Stars) (1982)

Set in a small town in WWII Italy, the Germans are retreating as American forces approach. But when the Germans order the town's inhabitants to gather all together in the church, half of the citizens decide to sneak off during the night and seek out the approaching Americans. Directed by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, this is a lovely memory piece. In its own way, it's not unlike HOPE AND GLORY which would come 4 years later. Both films look at war through a child's eyes. The story of STARS is recalled by a woman who was a child at the time and the whole thing is seen by her as a great adventure rather than a dangerous undertaking. When the horrors of the war become too much even for her, she fantasizes them as epic battles on the plains of Troy. Whether her memory is reliable is irrelevant, the Taviani brothers have given a magical yet surprisingly unsentimental look at the often absurdities of war as when old friends from opposing sides greet each other warmly before killing each other. And what faces! The enchanting score is by Nicola Piovani. It's must see cinema! With Omero Antonutti, Margarita Lozano, Claudio Bigagli and Mario Spallino.  

Friday, March 3, 2017

On The Waterfront (1954)

A has been boxer (Marlon Brando) works on the New York waterfront docks because his brother (Rod Steiger) is the right hand man of the mobster connected union boss (Lee J. Cobb). But when he's used to finger a friend (Ben Wagner) who is testifying before a crime commission, he slowly begins to get a conscience. Directed by Elia Kazan, this is one of the seminal films of the 1950s. Based on a story by Budd Schulberg (who also did the screenplay) which in turn is based on a series of newspaper articles by Malcolm Johnson. It's about as close to a flawless film as has been made. From Boris Kaufman's stark B&W lensing to Leonard Bernstein's stunning underscore, the film brings an intricate narrative to life with some of the best ensemble acting ever put on screen. Five of its actors got Oscar nominations. The scene in the cab between Steiger and Brando remains one of the most powerful justifications of method acting (not that we needed any) ever done.  If this all sounds like hyperbole, I can't help it. I love this movie! One of the great American films with one of the best performances by an actor (Brando) to reach the screen. With Eva Marie Saint (in an Oscar winning performance), Karl Malden, Leif Erickson, James Westerfield, Fred Gwynne, Pat Hingle, Nehemiah Persoff and Martin Balsam.  

Little Women (1933)

Set in Massachusetts during the Civil War, a mother (Spring Byington) and her four daughters (Katharine Hepburn, Joan Bennett, Frances Dee, Jean Parker) struggle to hold their family together while their father (Samuel S. Hinds) is off at war. Based on popular novel by Louisa May Alcott that has spawned 4 other film versions as well as several TV adaptations. While I have a personal preference for the 1949 MGM film and the 1994 film is probably the best film version, this George Cukor version is a lovely film. It's main strength is Hepburn's feisty Jo, a character she seems born to play. Joan Bennett is adorable as the vain Amy, Edna May Oliver a perfect Aunt March and Paul Lukas brings a gentle charm to the Professor but other performances are rather stiff. Douglass Montgomery as Laurie is thoroughly charmless and Jean Parker's Beth is a little too wan. I guess what keeps me from fully embracing it is the Victorian quaintness seems overdone. With Henry Stephenson, John Davis Lodge and Nydia Westman.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Tales From The Crypt (1972)

Five strangers find themselves visiting some ancient catacombs where the crypt keeper (Ralph Richardson) reveals the background stories that brought them there. The group consist of a murderous wife (Joan Collins), a man (Ian Hendry) who abandons his wife and child, a snob (Robin Phillips), a bankrupt businessman (Richard Greene) and a miserly manager (Nigel Patrick) for a home for the blind. Directed by cinematographer turned director Freddie Francis and based on stories featured in EC comics TALES FROM THE CRYPT and VAULT OF HORROR. A fine example of the horror anthology film, the stories are all well done with only the final segment about the home for the blind that goes on for much longer than it should. I'm still not sure why Greene's businessman is in the group since he was a victim and not a malevolent presence compared to the others who range from cold blooded killing to selfishly cruel. But horror fans should find this near irresistible fodder. With Peter Cushing, Patrick Magee and Barbara Murray.

Hired Wife (1940)

A devoted secretary (Rosalind Russell) is in love with her boss (Brian Aherne). So when a hostile takeover from a rival company is impending, the only way to save his company is to marry and put his money in his wife's name. The secretary is happy to oblige but her boss's girlfriend (Virginia Bruce) is not amused. Directed by William A. Seiter (YOU WERE NEVER LOVLIER), there's a sense of deja vu about the project. I had the feeling I'd seen this before (I hadn't) but it's a typical 1940s screwball romcom, the kind where the secretary has a great apartment and a fabulous wardrobe on a secretary's pay. If it sounds like I'm dissing it, I'm not. I had a good time with it, it's just not the most original movie, plot wise. Russell is wonderful, of course, this is the kind of roles she excelled in and it helps that she's so magnetic because her character is really manipulative and devious when you come right down to it. For a refreshing change, the other woman as played by Bruce is quite likable and decent so you can't hate her. Russell and Aherne work well together so the end result is never in question but the film doesn't leave Bruce high and dry. With Robert Benchley and John Carroll doing the Latin lover bit.

One Million Years B.C. (1966)

In the prehistoric era, a young man (John Richardson) is banished from his people when he challenges his father (Robert Brown). After traveling for quite awhile, he discovers another tribe of people who are more civilized and enlightened than his own barbaric tribe. He finds himself attracted to a comely beauty (Raquel Welch) of the tribe and she seems to return the attraction. Directed by Don Chaffey and with special visual effects by the legendary Ray Harryhausen. It's a remake of the 1940 film ONE MILLION B.C. (no "years" in the title). Its story line is simplistic but no one watches a movie like this for its plot. The attributes of the spectacular Welch aside, the "stars" of the film are the wonderful creations of Harryhausen. Though the film uses real reptiles that are enlarged for the camera (like JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH) for some scenes, it's Harryhausen's wizardry that antes up the fantasy quality of the film. Perhaps Harryhausen's most notable creation for the film is his Allosaurus and his fight with Richardson is probably the highlight of the movie. Special mention must be made of the other worldly stark Canary Islands location handsomely shot by Wilkie Cooper and the effectively eerie underscore by Mario Nascimbene. With Martine Beswick and Percy Herbert. 

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Mister Kingstreet's War (1971)

In 1939 Central Africa, the clouds of an impending war imposes itself on a wildlife reserve run by an American (John Saxon) and his wife (Tippi Hedren). An Italian Major (Rossano Brazzi) attempts to persuade them to allow the Italians the water rights on their property while the British attempt to have him spy for them on the Italians. How long can he remain neutral? Directed by Percival Rubens, the film has good intentions but it wears them on its sleeve. The film has an agenda (which is fine), namely protecting the environment, wildlife as well as being anti-war. But its story line could have been better thought out. Too much time is wasted on a tangled subplot with the conservationist's brother (Brian O'Shaughnessy) that feels like padding. It's clearly a low budget production and the film makers are doing the best with what they've got but a stronger screenplay would have gone a long way in credibility. The film's downbeat ending seems rushed even though I saw it coming. With Kerry Jordan and Joseph Sekatski.